Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Debate Surrounding SNAP Choice

There has been quite lot of talk recently about what SNAP beneficiaries choose to buy with their benefits. The conversation has particularly focused on condemning the purchase of items like soda and sweetened drinks. There is no question that the article - which reignited this debate over whether or not SNAP beneficiaries should be able to buy what they want - manipulated and misrepresented data in order to perpetuate an unfavorable narrative. As a result, many organizations fired back in an attempt to set the record straight, arguing that the findings of the USDA report actually conclude that “SNAP recipients and other households generally make the same purchases.”

It is important that we are aware of these attempts to delegitimize a program that helps keep millions of Americans from going hungry. The debates over SNAP purchases represent the paternalistic nature of our safety net system, and it shifts the public discussion from open access to strict oversight. We cannot support those aiming to escape poverty by dictating what they can and cannot do, and in a society that values free choice that includes allowing people to choose what they want to buy.

SNAP is often one of the most vilified public programs in the country, and this misrepresentation of data is becoming more common with regard to this program. In January of 2017, a report began circulating that claimed $70 million of SNAP money has been fraudulently spent. Even if we accept this premise - which many observers refuse to do, as the article cited a USDA report that apparently does not exist - opponents of SNAP fail to acknowledge that this is a $71 billion program, and with a fraudulent spending rate of 0.09% SNAP would actually be one of the most effective federal programs in existence today. But the numbers resonate, and that is what SNAP critics want. Opponents depend on these misrepresentations to further reinforce the stigmas that haunt people who apply to receive assistance; it legitimizes the “us and them” narrative that opponents rely on to justify draconian cuts to safety net programs.

The problem is that this is not a situation where we should be emphasizing “us and them.” Even if the claims of the article were true why is the first thought that this is an example of SNAP beneficiaries gaming the system? Why is this proof that individuals and families receiving SNAP cannot be trusted to make decisions for themselves? The question we should be asking is why aren’t we subsidizing healthy food options on top of providing SNAP benefits? Why are we okay with the fact that a bag of chips costs half as much as a bag of vegetables? And why are we criticizing people who are making the economical decision to budget their spending based solely on costs? Policy and political rhetoric revolve around the economics of decision-making - that smart individuals will take advantage of the market as it currently exists. Successful business people are often seen as those who cut the deal to get the most at the cheapest cost to themselves. How is that any different than what SNAP users have to do when purchasing food? Why do we judge SNAP beneficiaries on a different scale than we do businessmen?

Part of the mission of the Hub is providing food in a dignified manner; being told what you can and cannot eat is a demoralizing and undignified experience, and it contributes to the persistence of cycles of poverty and food insecurity. We want people to care about the quality of the food they eat, but that should not be done by telling people what to buy - it should be done by making quality foods the economical choice. In a perfect America, we would subsidize healthier options instead of dictating what SNAP beneficiaries can buy, but it is clear that our current environment will make this a difficult goal to achieve. We must be wary of attempts to isolate or differentiate those who find themselves in need of public assistance. The ramifications of legislating our idea of what it means to live in poverty and what people living in poverty should look like would spread well beyond a further entrenchment of the preconceived notions that plague SNAP beneficiaries. If we perpetuate the mentality that there is a specific mold that people living in poverty need to fit, that there is some other way that we can differentiate them from us to make them feel like less than a person, then we have failed as a society.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Moving Towards a More Just Food System: our trip to Detroit

Nothing big happens without advocacy, nothing happens without someone pushing it forward.
--Winona Bynum, RDP PMP  Executive Director, Detroit Food Policy Council

MHC's Stephanie Solomon and Hannah Lenchek
show off their stripes at the Detroit Food Summit
The Hub has been working with Why.Hunger to build a network of organizations across the Midwest who are moving towards a food justice model in their work. We had our first gathering in Chicago, in September of 2016.  We met again in mid March, this time in Detroit. The network is made up of emergency food providers (food pantries), food resource centers, food policy councils and those working with urban farming and community gardens.  The gatherings are a chance to share concerns, resources and ideas around food justice, with a focus on the challenges and opportunities specific to the Midwest region.
We organized this trip in conjunction with the Detroit Food Summit, hosted by the Detroit Food Policy Council. In addition to connecting with like minded organizations across the Midwest, we had the chance to take a food tour of innovative food programs in the Detroit area, and hear from community leaders in the Detroit area about their work in areas such as the Office of School Nutrition in the Detroit Public Schools, or The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program.
We connected as a coalition to explore the dominant narratives around food pantries and emergency food provision, and to begin to draft a new narrative based in principles of social justice. We explored topics such as the difference between equity and equality, what it might look like to move away from a charitable model, and how to envision and support just, sustainable food systems in our communities.

Mark Covington founder of the Georgia Street Community Collective
(photo from the GSCC website)

Georgia Street Community Collective 
Our Detroit food tour took us to the Georgia Street Community Collective. Mark Covington shared the story of returning to his neighborhood after some time away, to find abandoned lots filled with garbage, and neighbors filled with despair. He started by rounding up folks in the neighborhood to clean up some of the lots. Then some folks expressed interest in growing fresh food, something they had little access to in their part of town. Mark and a group of kids and teens in the surrounding houses started gardening in one of the lots. As their website notes, “..Mark began to think in bigger terms...terms like revitalization of the neighborhood, helping the youth of the neighborhood, bringing business to the area, and more…” Now the Georgia Street Community Collective is home to several thriving community gardens, an orchard, beehives, a happy flock of chickens and even a few rambunctious goats. The community center hosts a computer lab, winter jacket give-aways, a program for school supplies and more. The collective organizes Easter egg hunts, harvest festivals and other community gatherings. It’s so inspiring to see such a comprehensive approach, built from the ground up, by the community, for the community!
Mark Wimberly of the Friends Potato Chip Co.
We visited the Friends Potato Chip Co., and heard the story of Mark Wimberly’s vision for his neighborhood. He started by telling us, “We wanted to renew our relationship with the earth, renew our relationship with the community, and renew our relationship with the economy.” So they cleaned up a neighborhood lot and started growing food. Potatoes did well, thus, a potato chip company! Of course, it wasn’t so straightforward. “We Persevered” Mike confessed, “but not without a lot of gnashing of teeth!”  After multiple attempts, their line of delicious, natural chips ended up on Oprah’s Favorite Things list for 2016. Now this innovative social enterprise works hard to keep up with demand. Check out their website to learn more about all the wonderful things going on in their community.
Some of the fresh winter offerings at The Farmer's Hand
The Farmer’s Hand greeted us with delicious samples of locally grown and prepared foods, including a dark chocolate, to-die-for toffee. The Farmer’s Hand is a woman-owned artisanal market, café and kitchen specializing in all-local, Michigan-made food, drinks and gifts. We toured their gorgeous shop, and the site of the future restaurant and heard the founding story from Kiki Louya.
Much of the rest of our visit involved participation in the Detroit Food Summit. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Detroit seems to be leading the way in the Midwest towards more sustainable food systems. It is encouraging to see community members taking the lead in making changes that impact their own neighborhoods.

We learned about efforts to change the culture of school food, from Monica DeGarmo from the Office of School Nutrition (OSN). Under the leadership of Betti Wiggins, the OSN has transformed the nutritional standards in Detroit Public schools, doing away with what she calls “carnival food” (hot dogs, corn dogs, fried food) and has increased the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables, including locally sourced produce, and food from their Garden to Cafeteria Program! Bloomington Indiana has a lot to learn from Detroit, when it comes to food in our public schools!

Ben Hall of Russell Street Deli
One of the break-out sessions, Food not Fear, addressed threats to undocumented workers in the food industry. The panel included Ben Hall from Russell Street Deli, a Sanctuary Restaurant in Detroit’s Eastern Market, and other community activists working to protect vulnerable communities from recent immigration crackdowns.

Shane Bernardo sharing a useful organizing tool called Power Mapping
Shane Bernardo walked us through an introduction to Power Mapping, a useful tool for those working in advocacy and social justice. Shane is part of our Midwest Regional network, and we hope to have him visit The Hub for a more complete training in the near future.

The Hub’s own Stephanie Solomon Joined Suzanne Babb of Why.Hunger, Kathy Kelly-Long of the Broad Street Food Pantry, and Emma Garcia of Access of West Michigan in a panel discussion called Moving from Food Charity to Food Justice in the Midwest.
Stephanie Solomon, Emma Garcia, Kathy Kelly-Long and Suzanne Babb, in their
panel discussion Moving from Food Charity to Food Justice in the Midwest

"We put love and energy into every pot and create 
something magnificent." Bianca Danzy 
The women of A Taste of African Heritage put together a delicious lunch on the final day of the summit. Chef Bee (Sisters on a Roll) and Bianca Danzy (Real Food by Bianca) served up some beautifully seasoned collards, one of the many dishes they learned to prepare together in the cooking course focussed on healthy eating through connection to the African diaspora.
Shared dinners and a closing session with the regional network allowed for formal and informal relationship building with folks across the midwest looking to make positive change in our region’s food provision systems. By the end of this exciting and jam-packed week, we left feeling like we had only scratched the surface of the topics we approached, and looked forward to expanding the conversation and deepening the relationships.

We'll have a chance to meet up next in Tacoma, Washington for the Closing the Hunger Gap Conference in September.